Critiquing is a critical part of the writing process, both self-critiquing and having another set of eyes. But as much as we creative types love feedback, we also approach it with a sense of dread, even if we don’t realize it. How we react to the potential massacre of our manuscripts is up to us. And can also make or break our relationships with editors, bloggers, the reading public.
By the same token, giving a viable critique takes some practice as well. My father used to tell me that if my words were right, but my presentation stunk, no one would listen. Same goes for editing a manuscript. We can’t all be the Devil in Prada and get away with it.
I wrote an article about this subject that tackles both sides of the issue. I hope you find these tips useful regardless of what side you find yourself on.
The Value of a Critique
We’ve all been there. You finish that story giving it all your time, love, and attention. Your kids think your laptop is an extension of your hands, the household has run out of clean clothes to wear, and you have survived via coffee IV alone.
With adrenaline coursing through your veins, you relinquish the story to your editor. You are absolutely convinced that you have just blessed upon her the next great American novel. Like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, you expect her to dance with joy upon reading your manuscript. There’s no way there will be anything but love for your story. Right?
When your manuscript is returned, you wait with baited breath as your file opens, ready to read the glowing comments. Only they don’t glow. A dying flashlight gives off more light.
Yep, that’s your momentum that just hit the brick wall.
Let’s be honest. No one likes criticism, constructive or otherwise.
Some put a positive spin on it and learn to grow from critique, having “Why didn’t I think of that?” kind of moments. Others take it as a personal affront, certain that their editors wouldn’t know a good story if it bit them in the—well you get the idea. Either way, when it comes to our writing, our labor of love, we writers are a protective lot.
However defensive we may be, having your work critiqued is an integral piece of a writer’s puzzle. When you’re in the moment and the words are flowing, do you really think about whether or not that comma is being used correctly? What if your story is set in a cold weather climate and you insert an animal that would never survive the cold? These are just a couple of examples that can manifest themselves with another set of eyes gazing upon the fruit of our labor. Personally, I would rather my reviewer, or beta, find these things before I query my manuscript.
With every story, there are two sides. The process of critique is no different. As important as it is for a writer to embrace the sometimes harsh words of their reviewer, it is equally important for the reviewer to provide the words with the utmost care. This work is someone’s baby. The reviewer should provide their opinions and expertise in a way the writer can learn from it.
Fellow writers, it’s imperative to keep in mind a few points when facing the dreaded commentary:
- Take the comments as suggestions, not commands. After all, the writer makes the final call. You aren’t going to make everyone happy. Most copy edits (such as those pesky commas or em dashes) and major research inconsistencies should be heeded and corrected. Story edits require a more in depth look. A writer should take note as to what the suggestions are and ascertain what the problem could be potentially. Writers want to use their creative licenses’ and have fun entertaining the masses, but the masses should feel satisfied, not confused.
- The value of a critique is to grow as a writer. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in order to make it better. Writing is like anything else in life. There is always room for improvement and you can learn something new every day. Often times, we don’t learn from being alone, but from interacting with others. That brings me to my next point…
- Different points of view can be helpful. Another set of eyes can lift the writer out of the minutia of the story. Taking a step back can be useful in self-editing, but that can prove to be challenging. So to have someone go over your story and not be in your head is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to find out if the story you’re weaving is translating onto the paper. I have found that having someone from your target audience read the piece is also helpful. It gives a glimpse to see if you can capture that audience down the road.
- Know how to defend your story the right way. No one will fault you for defending your story, but keeping an open mind may be the difference between it being bird cage liner versus best-seller. There’s a fine line between passionate defense of your story and unyielding cut-your-nose-off-to-spite-your-face dogma. You have to stay on the right side of that line. If you feel someone is attacking your work, it is to your advantage to ask why the reader feels that way. Telling a reader the way it is will make them feel that you’re closed off to other ideas. In the end, making statements, as opposed to asking questions, will result in a critique that has less honest feedback and more false accolades.
- Finally, don’t be difficult. To be difficult with someone who is ultimately trying to help you falls under the biting-the-hand-that-feeds-you category. It’s never smart. There’s no incentive for an editor to take time out to critique your work and be honest if their suggestions are met with bitterness. The writer will always be victorious, but it doesn’t always make them a winner. Until you are selling millions of copies of your manuscript and/or raking in the dough for a large publishing house, “frustrating,” “hard to deal with,” or “exasperating” are not words you want associated with you. No one will want to work with you or for you. If you need proof, check out the demise of a particular starlet in Hollywood these days.
I have been on both sides of this equation. So I’m taking aim at the critics as well. The following points are some items I have found helpful when wearing my Kentucky Derby-esque critic’s hat.
- Give feedback from a good place. In other words, be honest but not hateful. A writer will not make everyone happy. As a critic, you should be objective. Does the story make sense? Are the characters developing as they should? If you’re more of a mystery/suspense sort of girl, but you’re editing a romance story, don’t turn your nose up at it. It defeats the purpose of your job: to aid a writer along in the writing process.
- Give suggestions, not commands when it comes to story edits. Don’t be afraid to ask questions for clarification. As a writer I understand that sometimes what I’m thinking isn’t what comes out on paper. As a reviewer, I understand that as well. If something doesn’t make sense, ask about it. Playing devil’s advocate can be a winning game at times. Perhaps that sentence could sound better than the way it’s written in your opinion. But keep in mind, it’s just your opinion. In that vein…
- Don’t force the writer to take suggestions; remember, it’s not your story! It is not your baby. Your job as an editor is to help that baby live up to its potential, much like a godparent. Though there will be times the reviewer will feel like they went through the labor pains as well, in the end, you are not the parent. Whatever final decisions are made have to be made by the writer.
It goes without saying that having someone tear up your work is not the most fun you will ever have in your writing journey. But as the saying goes, “it’s not the journey, it’s the destination.”
Now, go knock down that brick wall!